Ask A Single Mom: My Ex Has The Kids For Christmas. How Can I Cope?

Were you invited to a Moms’ Night Out Holiday Cookie Exchange that demanded you bake 72 homemade cookies and don’t know how to say no? Ask a Single Mom. Thinking about divorce and want to know what life is like on the other side? Ask a Single Mom. Have no idea how to make time for yourself or hate the other mothers in playgroup? Our resident Single Mom has the answers and clarity that can only come from hustling the parenting gig solo. 

Dear Ask A Single Mom:

My ex-husband and I divorced somewhat amicably a couple years ago, and we agreed that we would alternate who gets our two kids for Christmas each year. My turn was last year, and this year is his. It’ll be the first year I’ve spent the holidays away from my son and daughter since they were born, ten and seven years ago, respectively. I’m already heartbroken at the thought of not seeing them open gifts on Christmas morning. Is there anything I can do to make the holidays seem any less awful this year?

Signed, Circumstantial Grinch


Dear Circumstantial Grinch,

Every year around this time I return to my patron saint, Nora Ephron, and these lines from When Harry Met Sally:

Harry: Boy, the holidays are rough. Every year I just try to get from the day before Thanksgiving to the day after New Years.

Sally: A lot of suicides.

Nora gets single people. She gets how the holidays are six-weeks of relentless micro-aggressions disguised as reindeer and bows and a perfect family of four in flannel pjs, lobbed against any of us who don’t fit into a cultural norm created to sell sweaters at the Gap. Harry and Sally are already depressed and they don’t even have kids or a messy divorce yet!

The holidays are bullshit. There I said it. You can still like the holidays. You can like Christmas trees and turkey dinners. You can believe in and celebrate the religious underpinnings. You can have your special traditions. But over all, the holidays, and all the attending pressures that come with them, are a recipe to make people sad and depressed and lonely and pitiful.

Not married? Don’t have a big extended family and an aged grandma slaving over past-down-for-generations recipes? Living far from your family and can’t travel? Recently lost a loved one and this is your first holiday without them? Divorced and don’t have your kids this year? There are a thousand scenarios to feel like you and your holiday situation is just not…enough. And not only is it not enough, it’s downright upsetting.

The reality is, most people find the holidays stressful AF. Most people’s lives do not look like a Christmas ad for a new Lexus. So knowing this, knowing we’re part of one big, unrealistic marketing machine, do we conclude that the holidays are a societal construct that we can choose to participate in or not, that it’s all just another day, and therefore unimportant? Of course not. It’s just another day, sure, but we’re human and it’s a day that both symbolizes and reflects everything that went wrong (or right) and all the choices we’ve made so far.

My son is 7 years old and this is my sixth divorced Christmas. We’ve alternated years just like you and the years he’s not with me breaks my heart, the years he is, breaks my heart in a different way. I don’t have it down perfectly, because it’s not a perfect situation. But that’s OK and here’s how I cope:

  1. Accept that the holidays are hard. Be gentle with yourself. Ask your people to be gentle with you. Let them know when you’re having a hard time so they can support you.
  2. Plan ahead. Plan where you’re going to be on the days that are important to you and try to surround yourself with people who love you. Plan how you’re going to interact with your kids that day—is it the phone? Is it FaceTime? What time? After they open their presents? While they open them? Lunchtime? Be prepared to speak to your ex in-laws who will be fawning over your kids in the background. Be prepared to put a smile on your face when you do. Get your plan in place so you’re not sitting around anxious the day of (and your kids aren’t either).
  3. Don’t make your kids feel bad. They didn’t choose this, surely they want to be with both their parents. Be excited for them and sad on your own time. Typically I think it’s OK for kids to see that their parents experience a range of emotions, and seeing their parents hurt is not unreasonable. But here—this is about creating a safe space that allows them to feel joyous at a joyous time. They’re just kids, they don’t need to know what we know yet, so don’t ruin it for them. This is a hard thing for a divorced parent, faking it till you make it, but this shit is essential and it’s a skill you’ll use over and over again, get used to it.
  4. Cry if you need to. Eat 12 cookies. Then…
  5. Focus on the love that’s around you, right at that moment. In every painful situation, I try my best to look for the love and it always shows up.
  6. Create your special day with your kiddos that is not on the day, but it’s your day this year. And, dude, try not to put too much weight on it. Everything doesn’t have to be perfect. It doesn’t have to be a replacement day. It’s your day—think about what feelings you want your kiddos to have on that day. You want them to be happy and content. You don’t want them to feel pressured to recreate Christmas for you. You want them to feel loved and you want to feel loved by them. Create that.
  7. And as much as you can this season, focus on gratitude and giving back. Participate in a program that helps families in need. Do something special for the people you will be with. Love the shit out of your kids and be thankful you’ve got those little rascals.

If none of this works, then I offer you this: Remind yourself of all the reasons you got divorced. This is my last resort because it doesn’t necessarily feel all that charitable or kind. But all I have to do is think about the series of holidays my ex-husband ruined and how absolutely trapped and desperate I felt, and quickly I remember, yeah, fuck that, that’s not what I want, I’m good over here.

It’s just one foot in front of the other, straight into 2017. I’ll see you there.

Adrienne Gunn is a writer, editor, and storyteller and has published in McSweeney’s, PANK, TriQuarterly, Five Quarterly, among other journals, and has a one-woman show called Mother of the Year!

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